Cantor Richard Kaplan, scholar and fiery minyan leader dies at 72 – J.
Richard Kaplan, the cantor who will be remembered for introducing many Mizrachi melodies sung in East Bay synagogues – and for what her cantorial colleague Linda Hirschhorn described as “that wonderful, hoarse voice that was so enticing” – died on September 11. 21, his Hebrew birthday and the first day of Sukkot. The cause was pancreatic cancer. He was 72 years old.
Kaplan was physically tall and very present, with a soulful voice and energy to match.
“More important than his music was that he lived on a higher spiritual plane than most people,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham, who has worked with Kaplan for nearly two decades. “It was evident in his davening. His kavanah [intention] was from another world. Musically, he was a real scholar. No one knew more about Middle Eastern music than he did.
Although he served 22 years at the Conservative Oakland Synagogue, retiring in 2018 and becoming Cantor Emeritus, Kaplan had found a home in the Jewish Renewal movement, as a distinguished member of the Spiritual Advisory Board of Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where he received his cantorial smicha (ordination) of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He studied Hasidic music extensively for many years with Reb Zalman, as he was called, who joked that he “uploaded” his own enormous knowledge of Eastern European spiritual music into Kaplan.
According to his own bio on his website, Kaplan was raised in a musical family in Los Angeles and began singing professionally at age 14. He developed an early appreciation of world music, although the term had not yet been coined.
His bachelor’s degree from UCLA was in ethnomusicology and he earned a master’s degree from UC Berkeley in musicology. After working as a jazz pianist in Manhattan, Kaplan returned to California and taught music history at numerous colleges. He also immersed himself and taught martial arts.
Reintroduced into Judaism by a friend, he decided to study the cantorial tradition with the conservative cantor Marc Dinkin. In 1997, the same year that Kaplan started at Beth Abraham, he also co-founded the Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) Minyan with Renewal Rabbi Michael Ziegler. It has been held monthly at JCC East Bay for over 20 years, with Kaplan at the helm of the grand piano.
His friend Joshua Horowitz, musician and founder of the klezmer trio Veretski Pass, has often performed at Shir HaShirim Minyan.
“I loved Richard’s openness, both musically and personally,” said Horowitz. Calling the minyan a “hippie Shabbos,” Horowitz described the experience as having “a lot of swaying and people closing their eyes and me as a musician following Richard’s lead. His tastes were so eclectic. At these Shabboses we played melodies from the Middle East, Coltrane and Miles Davis, as well as Shlomo Carlebach.
“Our goal was to make the service as accessible as possible,” Kaplan said in an interview with J 2000. “We try to find a balance between prayer, song, meditation and dance.
“Richard was an inspiring light and a moving, big-hearted jazzy presence in our community,” said Laura Sheppard, another founder of minyan.
Kaplan has recorded several CDs of original music, and his interpretation of “Niggun of the Alter Rebbe” was performed in the “House, MD” television series.
Hirschhorn said she had a deep respect and admiration for what Kaplan brought to the community, “all of these amazing melodies from the Mizrachi lore that I had never heard before, and how he did that research.” He was such a deep intellectual in his understanding of these musical roots and modalities and he brought them to our ears.
Bloom recalled a few times when Mizrachi Jews attended Beth Abraham and would be moved to tears to hear Kaplan perform a tune from their childhood.
A “raucous and catchy” song from Iraq, “Hallelu Avdei Adonai”, was perhaps Kaplan’s centerpiece, according to Bloom, and continues to be a favorite with Beth Abraham, as well as other Renewal communities in the East Bay.
Bloom said: “We still do it without him, but not so well.”
A memorial service will be broadcast live from 8:30 am on Friday.